Bill Heaney: Correcting errors

WHEN you tell them they have made a mistake, why is it that some newspaper editors take it personally?

Surely they are experienced enough to know mistakes happen all the time, accept them, apologise for them and correct them as best they can and as soon as they can?

Mistakes and apologies are high on the agenda of the public who want to see changes in newspapers and the way they correct their mistakes.

This subject is up for discussion again, post-Leveson.

People who want corrections for errors are no longer content to see the apology tucked away in a few lines in a box on the ‘graveyard’ page. Instead, they often want corrections given the same prominence as the initial story in which the mistake was carried.

That’s perhaps preposterous, but what would be a fair way of dealing with errors?

My own was to put my hand up and say sorry and then to attempt to lighten the proceedings with humour.

“A man who never made a mistake never made a discovery,” I would say, quoting Samuel Smiles.

And all the while I would be reassuring the complainer I would publish a correction.

Or else I would say, jokingly, that the mistake was deliberate and that I had put it there to ensure people were paying attention when they were reading my column.

However, there are times when these tactics are neither welcome nor appropriate and a more serious tone has to be adopted.

And that is when something calamitous happens like publishing the wrong photograph of a person who is deceased.

Or the wrong picture of an accused person in a high-profile court case.

The only acceptable correction for that should be to publish the correct picture in the next edition of the paper.

So far as other mistakes are concerned, I believe they should be put in a box in bold type, on an early right-hand page.

What should definitely not happen is for editors to take the huff, treat complainers in an off-hand manner and start arguing over an obvious error.

They should have the courtesy to apologise immediately, publish a correction and get on with it.

Bill Heaney is an award-winning journalist who edited the Lennox Herald for many years and was a special adviser, on the regional Press, at Holyrood and a media adviser at Westminster. He is now retired but continues to operate as a columnist with the Lennox Herald and a pro bono media consultant to a number of churches and charities.